We have said a good deal about Sri Aurobindo the Poet. And we have looked upon Savitri as the peak—or rather the many-peaked Himalaya—of Aurobindonian poetry. Also, in dealing with the supreme altitude as well as the inferior heights we have given glimpses of the Poet's view of the poetic phenomenon both in its essence and in its progression. It may not be amiss to dwell at a little more length on some of the fundamentals involved.

 

The easiest way to do so would be to string together or else paraphrase a number of passages from Sri Aurobindo's literary criticism. But I should think a mode more relevant in a series of discourses on the Poet Sri Aurobindo would be to pick out lines from his greatest poem—Savitri—and lay bare with their help his view on being a poet and, wherever necessary, use the literary criticism for confirmation. Academics may frown but the poetry-reader is likely to appreciate the novelty of the treatment.

 

We may launch on our venture with a verse from Book V, Canto 2, where Sri Aurobindo narrates the early life of Satyavan. Satyavan is called

 

A wanderer communing with depth and marge.

[p. 393]

 

This semi-Wordsworthian turn is a suggestive summary of the poet's mood in its basic orientation. The poet moves among a diversity of things but everywhere he gets into living touch with what seems to overpass the limits of life, he is in his mood always at the edge of things, communing with their ultimate aspects and looking over the edge to commune with the beyond and to experience profundities in all with which he establishes a contact of consciousness. And we may include, in "communing", the poet's relationship with marge and depth in his reader's being by means of revealing words that draw a response from it. Communion would thus cover communication.

 

Yes, this line is a good hint of the poetic process. But it is not specifically what I wish to put forth. The verses I want to quote are two groups, each consisting of six lines—and, incidentally though far from superfluously, four passages relevant to one group. The sestet with which the passages are linked is a straight run, the other's components do not occur immediately in sequence but are made an ensemble by me. I shall take up first the second group and try to elicit from it a many-shaded picture of poetic psychology and metaphysics according to Sri Aurobindo.

 

The ensemble is from Book V, Canto 3. As in the line about the "wanderer", Sri Aurobindo is not exclusively describing here the poetic mood and process. I am adapting to my own purpose some phrases of ms that can be taken to describe them because they are portions of a context where the inward development of Satyavan is described in connection with his experience and exploration of Nature, a development on a broad scale that does issue also in art-activity on Satyavan's part. Here are the lines:

 

As if to a deeper country of the soul

Transposing the vivid imagery of earth,

Through an inner seeing and sense a wakening came....

I caught for some eternal eye the sudden

Kingfisher flashing to a darkling pool,...

And metred the rhythm-beats of infinity...

[pp. 404-5]

 

In the first three lines we have the indication of a new awareness which is not on the surface but in the recesses of our being, the recesses that are called "soul". On a hasty reading, we may be inclined to think that the word "soul" is here employed in a general way for our self and that several countries are ascribed to it, some shallow and some deep, and that the reference is not so much to the soul in a special connotation as to "a deeper country". Such an interpretation would be a mistake. The soul is not here a generalisation, it is acutely contrasted to "earth": the two turns—"of the soul" and "of the earth"—are balanced against each other: there are only two countries implied, the country of earth and the country of the soul, the former a surface region, the latter a "deeper" domain. And by "earth" with its "vivid imagery" is meant the contents of our normal waking consciousness packed with thousands of observations, whereas the "soul" stands for a consciousness other than the life-force and mind operating in conjunction with a material body and brain. This consciousness is ordinarily like a dream-region, but the poet undergoes a novel "wakening" there by which he reinterprets in a different and deeper light the earth-experience. Nor is that all. His reinterpretation involves the experience of new things in the soul's depths, things which are as if earthly objects "transposed" into them but which in reality exist in their own right, native to those depths and constituting the originals whose copies or representatives are earthly objects. The specific quality of the experience of these originals is to be gauged from the use of the word "soul" and no other. Poetry is primarily not the exclamation of the mind and its concepts, not the cry of the life-force and its desires, not the appeal of the body and its instincts. All of them are audible in it, but in tune with a central note beyond them whichas Longinus recognised centuries agostrangely transports us, a note charged with some ecstatic ideality, a magical intimacy, a mysterious presence, which we can specify only as the Divine.

 

When we say this we should not lay ourselves open to the objection: "All fine poets do not offer us spiritual matter. They talk of a multitude of earthly things and some of them are even disbelievers. The Roman Lucretius scoffed at religion and said that the gods were created by human fear: he was materialist and atheist by intellectual persuasion." It is true that a lot of excellent poetry is ostensibly unconcerned with any divine reality. But need that prove it non-spiritual whether in its origin or in its process? Its spirituality lies basically in the exercise in it of a rare power which goes beyond the human consciousness's well-established modes of functioning and which we may designate, for want of a proper term "intuition", an intensity of immediate response penetrating the "within" of all appearances by a lightning-like enraptured plumbing of one's own "within". Poetry is spiritual, in the first place, by the intuitive manner in which any theme is diversely treated by the imagination, the intuitive activity. The imagination's treatment is reflected in a word-gesture, the heart's thrill is echoed in a word-movement, that carry a certain absoluteness about them. There is an inevitable phrase-pattern, there is an unimpeachable rhythm-design—in short a form of perfect beauty inwardly created, not built up by mere outward skill. Through such form, poetry, whatever its subject, comes with the face and gait of a godhead. How even materialism and atheism could come like this is well hit off by a paradoxical turn of Elizabeth Browning's about Lucretius: she writes in a poem that he "denied divinely the Divine".

 

It is the intrinsic divineness of the intuition-packed creative style of poetry that is the soul's note in it. And it is because the soul finds tongue through the poet that we have a light in poetry, a delight in poetry. Light and delight are the soul's very stuff, we might say, and by virtue of them the soul's "inner seeing and sense" is not just a fanciful entertainment but a kind of revelation. Of course, it is not directly a spiritual, a mystic gesture and movement: it is only indirectly so and even when its subject is spiritual or mystic the poet does not necessarily become a Yogi or a Rishi. In most instances he is no more than an "inspired" medium. But the soul-quality ensures, as Sri Aurobindo puts it in The Future Poetry, that the genuine poetic utterance is not merely a pastime, not even a godlike one: "it is a great formative and illuminative power." [2]

 

The psychological instrument of this power is defined by the phrase: "inner seeing and sense." Here the stress is not only on the inwardness: it is also on sight. The poet is fundamentally occupied with the activity of the eye. When he turns to the phenomena of earth, what he busies himself with is their "vivid imagery". An image is something visual. A keen experience of shapes and colours is the poet's speciality and it is this that is connoted by the word: "seeing and sense." "Sense" is a term suggesting at once perception and feeling and understanding, a contact of consciousness with an object; but the main channel of the contact here is the sight. The perceiving, feeling, understanding consciousness of the poet comes to an active point, an effective focus, through the function of seeing: his the concentration and merging of all sense in vision. "Vision", says Sri Aurobindo in The Future Poetry, "is the characteristic power of the poet, as is discriminative thought the essential gift of the philosopher and analytic observation the natural genius of the scientist." [3] A very acute and felicitous statement, this. Note first the noun "power" in connection with the poet. It recalls to us De Quincey's division of literature into the literature of knowledge and the literature of power. Philosophy and science are the literature of knowledge while all prose and poetry that are pieces of art fall under the category of literature of power because they affect the emotions and change attitudes and remould character. Note next the adjective "essential" in relation to the philosopher's gift. Philosophy is supposed to make clear the basic principle of reality, the essence of things. Then note the epithet "natural" apropos of the scientist's work. The scientist cuts into the physical universe and reaches down to its system of laws - his field is what commonly passes as Nature. A born master of words has made the statement, instinctively using the most expressive turns. But we are not at the moment concerned so much with the art of statement as with its isolation of the poet's function from the functions of the philosopher and the scientist: this function is primarily neither to think out reality nor to dissect phenomena but to experience the play of light and shadow, fixity and flux, individual form and multiple pattern: the poet may have a philosophic or a scientific bent (Lucretius had both), but he must exercise it in a glory of sight, set forth everything with intimate image, evocative symbol or at least general suggestive figurativeness.

 

To make a broad resume in Sri Aurobindo's words: "...the native power of poetry is in its sight" and "the poetic vision of life is not a critical or intellectual or philosophic view of it, but a soul-view, a seizing by the inner sense", and the poetic climax is, in its substance and form "the rhythmic revelation or intuition arising out of the soul's sight..." [4]

 

The ancient Indian word for poet is Kavi, which means one who sees and discloses. Of course the disclosing, the making manifest, the showing out is an integral part of the poet's function, and it is this part that is stressed in the Latin term poeta from the Greek poetes, which stands for "maker", "fashioner", "creator". But the whole labour of formation lies in rendering visible, in leading us to see, what has been seen by the one who forms. The vision is the first factor, the embodiment and communication of it is the second. The Indian name goes to the root of the matter in speaking of the seer who discloses instead of the discloser who has seen. Shakespeare bears out the Indian characterisation, though he does not neglect the Greek and Latin, by the famous passage which describes what the poet does. In picturing the poet's activity he speaks of "the poet's eye"—

 

The poet's eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,

Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven,

And as imagination bodies forth

The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen

Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothings

A local habitation and a name.

 

Yes, the poet is primarily a seer, but we may remember that he does not stop with mere sight of the surface of reality: his is not sight so much as in-sight: he sees through, behind, within: his fundamental glancing is, as Shakespeare puts it, "from heaven to earth" and, only after that, it is "from earth to heaven". The poet's "fine frenzy" transports his eye to some paradisal Yonder before bringing it into touch with the terrestrial Here. Even when the latter is touched, there is no resting there: the former is once again reached, the reader is carried finally where the writer started from. And the forms which the poet bodies forth are of things unknown, there is always something unfathomable about his vision—a distance beyond distance, a depth beyond depth: this constitutes the transcendence of the intellectual meaning by poetry.

 

Ultimately the transcendence derives from the Supreme Spirit, the Poet Creator whose words are worlds. The human poet's vision has a contact, remote or close, with "some eternal eye", as the phrase runs in the fourth line of our quotation from Savitri. Sri Aurobindo has written in The Future Poetry: "The intellectual, vital, sensible truths are subordinate things; the breath of poetry should give us along with them or it may even be apart from them, some more essential truth of the being of things, their very power which springs in the last resort from something eternal in their heart and secrecy, hrdaye guhayam, expressive even in the moments and transiences of life." Mark the words: "something eternal." [5] In another place we read that the poet may start from anything: "... he may start from the colour of a rose, or the power or beauty of a character, or the splendour of an action, or go away from all these into his own secret soul and its most hidden movements. The one thing needful is that he should be able to go beyond the word or image he uses ... into the light of that which they have the power to reveal and flood them with it until they overflow with its suggestions or seem even to lose themselves and disappear into the revelation. At the highest he himself disappears into sight; the personality of the seer is lost in the eternity of the vision, and the Spirit of all seems alone to be there speaking out sovereignly its own secrets." [6] Mark again the turn: "the eternity of the vision." The Eternal Eye is at the back of all poetic perfection, and what this Eye visions is the Divine Presence taking flawless shape in a super-cosmos. To that shape the poet, in one way or another, converts the objects or events he depicts.

 

The conversion is the act put before us in the fourth and fifth lines of our ensemble. Every word and turn in them is worth pondering. "I caught," Sri Aurobindo makes Satyavan say. There is implied no mere touching, no mere pulling, not even mere holding. Nothing tentative is here: we have an absolute seizure, a capturing that is precise and complete. The poet gathers and grips a thing unerringly and for good. Such a gathering and gripping suggests to us a shade in the adjective "eternal", which is not directly mystical but still very pertinent to the artistic process. Sri Aurobindo in The Life Divine talks of timeless eternity and time-eternity—an eternity which is outside or beyond the time-movement and an eternity which is constituted by time itself going on and on without end. This latter kind—indefinitely continuing world-existence—poetry achieves for whatever it catches. The perfection of phrase in which it embodies its vision makes that vision memorable for ever: it confers immortality on its themes by expressing them in such a way that the expression gets imprinted indelibly on the human mind: it eternises for all future a happening or an object of the present or the past. As Landor says:

 

Past ruin'd Ilion, Helen lives,

Alcestis rises from the shades;

Verse calls them forth: 'tis verse that gives

Immortal youth to mortal maids.

 

Shakespeare in several places in his sonnets declares that his powerful verse shall outlive marble and the gilded monuments of Princes. In one sonnet he asks: Who or what can save you, my lover, from being destroyed or forgotten? And he gives an answer paradoxically pointed:

 

O none unless this miracle have might,

That in black ink my love may still shine bright.

 

Now from the poet who is the vision-catcher and from the eternal eye for which he acts the visionary we may come to what is caught, the thing visualised. It is "the sudden kingfisher". Technically we cannot help being struck by the way the adjective stands—at the end of the line. In poetry lines are either end-stopped or enjambed. Enjambment (a French word) connoted originally the continuing of the sentence of one couplet into the next instead of stopping short. In general it connotes the running on of the phrase of one line into another instead of ending with the line's end or at least pausing there as a sort of self-sufficient unit. "Sudden" makes an enjambment and it makes it with what is termed a feminine ending, a close on a syllable unstressed and extra to the standard metrical length. What it thereby achieves are a host of effects. The first effect is to startle us by the occurrence of an adjective without is noun, an occurrence besides at so marked a place in the line as its very termination. Technically the meaning of the adjective is reinforced by its unexpected terminal place. But there are still other effects. One is in relation to the verb "caught". Suddenness suggests a quick movement which takes one by surprise and which may be thought to be uncatchable. So we have the phenomenon as of the uncatchable being caught, a tribute to the catcher, a hint of the mobile miracle that is the artist mind, a mind that can overtake anything and make an imaginative capture of it. How sudden the bird was is told in the next line where it is said to be "flashing". Even something as fast and fleeting and momentary as flashing and momentary as a flash can be seized by the poet's pursuing eye. And a further shade of the miracle comes out with the word "eternal". We took this word to mean both the unforgettable everlasting value poetry gives to a mortal thing and the value which a Divine Consciousness holds as the everlasting archetype of a thing that happens in the temporal world. The poet seizes flash­like objects for ever; once seized they are never submerged—if we may cite an unforgettable Shakespearean phrase—

 

In the dark backward and abysm of time.

 

Also, the contrast between the Divine Consciousness and the time-process is brought out by "sudden". The character of time is transitoriness, momentariness: nothing stands still, all life is a succession of infinitesimal rapidities, a series of suddennesses. This constant evanescence is vividly counterposed to Eternity by the concrete figure of the sudden kingfisher. The kingfisher in its incredibly swift flight is a symbol of all time. A slower-moving object would have failed to drive home both the perpetuation that the poet achieves and the archetypal divinity he serves, and his service of that eternity is struck out most clear for us by the marked closing position of "sudden".

 

We may add that if "sudden" had come in the next line, the poetic stroke would have been diminished. Suppose Sri Aurobindo had written:

 

I caught for some deep eye that is eternal

The sudden kingfisher's flash to a darkling pool.

 

Here we have eternity in one line and time in another. Do we not blur their contrast a little by this sheer division? Have we not heard of Kohler's experiments to ascertain the psychology of apes? One experiment puts a banana outside a chimpanzee's cage, exactly in front of the animal but beyond his arm's reach. To the right of the chimpanzee, outside the cage, a stick is put. The ape looks straight at the banana and then turns his head to look at the stick. The means of getting at the banana and pulling it into the cage is there but it needs another look than the one which takes in the banana. The animal is found unable to co-ordinate the two looks and arrive at a logical procedure for getting hold of the fruit, as it would if the stick were in a line with the banana. We feel rather like the chimpanzee if "eternal" is in line one and the expression suggesting the temporal is in line two. The needed contrast which would kindle the significance of the poetic vision gets a trifle weakened: there is a slight loss of immediacy, a slight failure in the meaningful fusion of the objects presented: the revelation by a bit of thought-effort: the technique is not fully co-operative with the vision.

 

We may draw attention to some other defects also. At first sight one may feel that whole phenomenon of the kingfisher is shown in its completeness in a single line, the second, and that this is a poetic gain. But consider the metrical rhythm of the line. Too many syllables—twelve in fact—are crowded together, creating a dancing wavering rhythm which serves ill the simple straight swift motion of the bird. Again, what stands in central focus now is the flash and not the kingfisher. Many different things may be said to give a flash: a sort of generality is grasped through the flashing, a less distinct less individualised and hence less concrete symbol is conjured up. The mention of the kingfisher seems hardly significant and inevitable: this particular bird with its special shape, colour, gesture appears somewhat wasted and correspondingly wasted is the pool which can have vital importance only if not the flash but the kingfisher with its habit of food-hunting in watery spots holds the chief place.

 

This point, as well as to some extent the point in regard to the metre, would be valid even if Sri Aurobindo wrote:

 

I caught for some eternal eye the flashing

Of the sudden kingfisher to a darkling pool.

 

The sole advantage over the other version would be that the contrast between eternity and time would be more forceful by the retention of a word charged with momentariness in the very line where "some eternal eye" figures. But then force would be lessened in the intended contrast between "flashing" and "darkling". Besides, to put the "flashing" before the "sudden kingfisher" is not so logical or so artistic as the other way round. The adjective for the kingfisher becomes unimpressive and almost superfluous after intensity of "flashing": also the act of flashing and the quality of suddenness grow two separate things instead of the former emerging from the latter and being the latter itself in an intense manifestation. The alliteration of the f-sounds and the sh-sounds in the two words "flashing" and "kingfisher" loses its expressive inevitability. In the phrase "kingfisher flashing" the alliteration in the second word brings out, as it were, a power already there in the bird so that the act of flashing is the natural and spontaneous flow of the kingfisher's being and is prepared, rendered unavoidable, made the true gesture of it. If "flashing" precedes "kingfisher" we have something blurted out before its time, and if the precedence is too far ahead the alliteration itself runs to waste.

 

Perhaps one may urge that the first rewriting supposed by us could have a slight change in its second line and put the kingfisher itself and not its flash in the chief place:

 

The sudden kingfisher flashing to a darkling pool.

 

But then the metre will grow still more dancing and wavering and the technique would break apart from the vision all the more.

 

No, Sri Aurobindo's arrangement of all the words remains the most felicitous and the sort of enjambment he achieves is also happier than any other; for no other can be so marked as an adjective divorced from its noun—"sudden" poised for the fraction of a second aloof from "kingfisher"—but carrying us on imperatively to what it qualifies. The enjambment suggests that, though momentariness is here, there is no cessation of the movement itself: we are hurried onward, pressed forward to the next line, so that we have a continuous movement of momentarinesses. Such a movement serves Sri Aurobindo's subject very appropriately, since the subject is not the kingfisher sitting out on a tree with its series of movements that follow one another, but the kingfisher in motion in the time-flux, the kingfisher flashing. The suggestion of "flashing" is anticipated and prepared by the enjambed technique working through "sudden". Further, the whole last foot in which the adjective stands is what is called an amphibrach: the foot consists of three syllables—"the sudden"—with only the central syllable stressed. Metrically it is like the last foot of the Shakespearean verse already quoted:

 

The poet's eye in a fine frenzy rolling...

 

Sri Aurobindo has called Shakespeare's last foot "a spacious amphibrach like a long plunge of a wave" and remarked about the entire line's structure of four stressed intrinsically long vowels and one stressed vowel that is intrinsically short, all of them forming a run of two iambs, a pyrrhic, a spondee and an amphibrach: "no more expressive rhythm could have been contrived to convey potently the power, the excitement and the amplitude of the poet's vision." [7] Our amphibrach is not spacious: its vowel is not quantitatively long like the “o” of "rolling": the vowel here is a short u and even the final syllable "en" is almost a half-syllable. The amphibrach is a rather compressed one, but there is enough of the unstressed third syllable to make with the stressed one preceding it a falling movement. Here too is a plunge, though not of a high-risen wave: it is a packed rather than a spacious plunge and as such it is quite in conformity with the small bird that the kingfisher is, and the falling movement is in perfect tune with the kingfisher's act of flying down from a tree to a pool. "Flashing" here implies not only a swift movement but also a downward one and, just as the enjambment anticipates and prepares the former, the feminine ending anticipates and prepares the latter. However, the swift downward movement of the small kingfisher would hardly be hinted so well by the amphibrach-enjambment if the last two syllables of the foot were not that significant word "sudden".

 

Now we reach the kingfisher itself. We shall not dwell on the metrical technique of the line given to its activity -except to make two remarks. The word "kingfisher" at the start of the line has its stress on the first syllable, initiating by the trochaic foot formed by its two opening syllables a falling movement in continuation of the same "cadence" at the end of the previous line, and the stressed syllable is an i intrinsically short, though just a little lengthened by the consonantal sounds after it. So we have a suggestion not only of the darting from above but also of brevity-cum-force and insignificance-cum-insistence drawing itself out, as it were, by its darting—in sum, the diminutive diver and hunter with the little body and long beak and bright plumage and proud crest. At the close of the line we have the word "pool", a stressed word with an intrinsically long vowel-sound which especially evokes a sense of something significant deep down to which the kingfisher dives. So much for the purely metrical technique. Now for a few aspects of the verbal technique.

 

"Darkling" after "flashing" and before "pool" is an interesting effect in the picture of the kingfisher. It literally means being in the dark, being in a hidden state, but it cannot help bearing the sense of growing dark, of holding hiddennesses, and its function here is to tell us that the pool was a place of shadows, that it was a sort of secrecy. The very sound of the word, the combination of r and k and l, calls up the vision of a liquid glimmer-gloom and makes the word the most apt adjective for a thing like a pool which is a small mass of still water in which light goes diminishing as it is drawn deeper and deeper towards an invisible bottom. And then there is the play it makes with the preceding present participle "flashing". "Flashing" in itself blends the impression of lightning with the impression of a sweep and swish of wings through the air—again the aptest term for the rapid leap of colourful bird-life. But its connection with "darkling" presents our thought simultaneously with two facts that go beyond the mere account of a bird diving for its food. We see something intensely luminous dropping into something increasingly mysterious. It is a vision of keen beauty disappearing—but not to be swallowed up and lost. We get a sense as of a masterful plunge of brightness into a dark profundity. There is not exactly the exquisite casualty of Nashe's

 

Brightness falls from the air

 

but a kind of dangerous adventure in which life laughingly dares darkness and plucks its prey  from it. There is evanescence, no doubt, the time-touch, yet within the evanescence beats a triumph. The vision of life arises as though we were being shown what the phenomena of ordinary existence would look like when they are caught by the poet for some eternal eye and given their ultimate interpretation—or rather we have at once those phenomena and the deeper version of them that is truth in eternity.

 

Further, you may notice that the whole event described here is so much like the essential poetic experience itself. An airy colourfulness drops with a winged burst of revelatory light into a hidden depth in order to bring up from the depth some life-nourishing secret. We have the poetic intuition falling into the poet's inner being and capturing its contents for the poet's self-expression. And just remember that a darkling pool closely resembles an eye waiting with in­drawn expectant stillness for a shining disclosure from above which will lay bare to that receptivity what lies within the dreamer's own vigilant soul, what hides there to feed with its mysterious life the light that fell from on high.

 

Indeed a many-aspected statement is present in Sri Aurobindo's picture, and its relevance to the poetic process is completed by the next line which I have joined on to these two:

 

And metred the rhythm-beats of infinity.

 

The poet is primarily a seer, but his instrument for seizing his vision and communicating it is the word: it is by the inspired sound that he creates a form for his intuitive sight. The inspired sound is implicit in the poetic act—and, just as the poet's vision must ultimately have behind it the working of some eternal eye, the poet's word must ultimately have behind it the working of some eternal ear. The ultimate home of the poetic process is the spiritual "Akash", the Self-space of the Spirit, the Divine Consciousness's infinity of self-extension. And this infinity has its creative vibrations that are at the basis of all cosmos. These vibrations are to be caught, however distantly or indirectly, by the sound of poetry. In terms of our own quotation, what the poet metricises when he captures in his verse the kingfisher's beat of pinions, is the rhythm-beats of the spacious ether of the Eternal Being who is the secret substance, one of whose vibrant materialisations is the kingfisher.

 

Some may, however, question the verb "metred". Modernists believe that metre is an artificial shackle on poetry from which they want to escape into what they call "free verse". But actually no verse can be free without ceasing to be verse: if there is no regulating principle of a distinguishable sort, however subtle be its regulation, we have the laxer movement of prose. If that laxer movement tries to pass off as poetry by some device like cutting itself up into long and short lines and sprinkling a few out-of-the-way locutions on a run of commonly turned words, then we do not have real verse but a pretentious and ineffectual falsity, about whose relation to prose we shall have to say, even at the risk of an atrocious and well-worn pun, that it is not prose but worse! Poetry must have not only intensity of vision and intensity of word; it must have also intensity of rhythm. That is the demand of the Aurobindonian poetics. And how is rhythm to be intense without having a central motif in the midst of variations, a base of harmonic recurrences over which modulations play, a base which is never overlaid with too much modulation but rings out its uniformity through the diversity? In the older literatures, metre tended to be of a set form. But to be of a set form is not the essence of metre. It was so because thus alone something in the older consciousness, the strong sense of order, of dharma, got represented in art. When the consciousness changes and becomes more individualised, more complex, as in modern times, the metre may follow suit. Every age can make its own metrical designs and our age may devise or discover less apparent regularities and complicate or subtilise its schemes of sound. There is no harm in that, though in an epoch of individuality we cannot insist that an individual who still finds something of the older metres a natural mould for his mood-movements should mechanically conform to the new nonconformity! All must have a right to be individual—and if people want to be boldly experimental in prosody they may do so, but the soul of metre must not be lost—or else poetry in the truest connotation will get lost with it. Even "free verse" is, when is still true poetry, a broad pattern of returning effects, a pattern rounded off and swaying under a dexterous disguise as a single whole—and it is true poetry precisely by being not really free but just differently bound than the older poetic creation.

 

My own penchant is for metre and I grant some point to an amusing exaggeration by George Gissing. Gissing expressed horror of "miserable men who do not know—who have never even heard of—the minute differences between Dochmiacs arid Antispasts". If you happen to be those miserable men I may tell you that a Dochmiac is a five-syllabled Greek foot composed of short-long-long-short-long and an Antispast is a four-syllabled Greek foot consisting of short-long-long-short. But I am afraid I cannot tell you more minute differences than that the former has one final long in excess of the latter, and if there is a yet minuter difference I myself shall have to live in the misery of ignorance. What, however, I do know I may concretely impart to you by illustrating a Dochmiac and an Antispast, in English prosodic terms, through a compliment to our horror-stricken ecstastic of metre:

 

x    /     /     x  /      x     /          /   x

An all-wise delight | is George Gissing's.

 

Perhaps the compliment seems too high-pitched. But that there is an essence of truth in it will be conceded if we track metre to its origin in the Divine Ananda, the Delight of the All-wise. Sri Aurobindo has stated very strikingly the truth about metre. "All creation," he writes, "proceeds on a basis of oneness and sameness with a superstructure of diversity, and there is the highest creation where is the intensest power of basic unity and sameness and on that supporting basis the intensest power of appropriate and governed diversity.... Metre was in the thought of the Vedic poets the reproduction in speech of great creative world-rhythms; it is not a mere formal construction, though it may be made by the mind into even such a lifeless form: but even that lifeless form or convention, when genius and inspiration breathe the force of life into it, becomes again what it was meant to be, it becomes itself and serves its own true and great purpose. There is an intonation of poetry which is different from the flatter and looser intonation of prose, and with it a heightened or gathered intensity of language, a deepened vibrating intensity of rhythm, an intense inspiration in the thought substance. One leaps up with this rhythmic spring or flies upon these wings of rhythmic exaltation to a higher scale of consciousness which expresses things common with an uncommon power both of vision and of utterance and things uncommon with their own native and revealing accent; it expresses them, as no mere prose speech can do, with a certain kind of deep appealing intimacy of truth which poetic rhythm alone gives to expressive form and power of language: the greater this element, the greater is the poetry. The essence of this power can be there without metre, but metre is its spontaneous form, raises it to its acme. The tradition of metre is not a vain and foolish convention followed by the great poets of the past in a primitive ignorance unconscious of their own bondage; it is in spite of its appearance of human convention a law of Nature, an innermost mind-nature, a highest speech-nature." [8]

 

The verb "metred", therefore, in the last line of our quotation may be held to be perfectly in order, especially in a context where infinity is implied to be harmoniously dynamic, eternity is said to be the visioner of the temporal and both together emerge as the creator of poetry through the human soul.

 

Our second group of six lines picturing Sri Aurobindo's poetic psychology and metaphysics are part of an account of Savitri's long quest for her soul's mate Satyavan. Savitri encounters various types of spiritual seekers retired from the noisy world into woods and hills. One band of them, pressing with a motionless mind beyond the confines of thought to sheer spiritual Light, comes back from there with the native word of the supreme Consciousness, the mantra such as we find in the Vedas, the Upanishads and the Gita:

 

Intuitive knowledge leaping into speech,

Hearing the subtle voice that clothes the heavens,

Carrying the splendour that has lit the suns,

They sang Infinity's names and deathless powers

In metres that reflect the moving worlds,

Sight's sound-waves breaking from the soul's great deeps.

[p. 383]

 

This is a description of the poetic process at its highest spiritual pitch and it is itself a-thrill with the vibrations of what is spoken of and compasses in the closing verse the full breath of the mantra while concentrating in one brief expression the ultimate nature of the mantric utterance.

 

Yes, the whole subject is a special hieratic one, but the treatment of it sheds light on the nature of poetic inspiration in general. For, if the mantra is the ideal poetry, all poetry that is genuine must represent or shadow forth in its own way the mantric essence.

 

In our first group of six lines we listed as the divine element in all poetry the inner intuitive cast of imaginative and emotional excitement taking shape in the outer rhythmic word-gesture and word-movement and thereby creating a perfect beauty. It is the creative intuition that is now pictured as it operates on the level of a most directly spiritual poetry. In such poetry the original power channelled by the poet comes into its own, getting its fullest scope; for has not Sri Aurobindo the defining phrase: "A direct spiritual perception and vision called by us intuition"? [9]

 

We begin with the basic act of "intuitive knowledge" and its stirred seizures of truth get moulded into language: the leap upon the heart of reality's significances is at the same time a leap into words answering to them. The intuitive knowledge has two sides: the revelatory rhythm and the revelatory vision. The former is a subtlety of vibration in tune with the measureless mystery of the absolute Bliss and bringing into manifestation the unknown silences: it is in the form of a "voice" which gives the secret body of the heavenly existence a vesture woven of meaningful sound—sound that follows like a wonderfully responsive clothing the ever-indrawn identity of the Supreme. And this clothing of sound, with its rhythmic ripples, is a "splendour" at the same time that it is a "voice". The simile of a garment for sound is of high import: it shows that what is heard and what is seen are a single reality. Thus our passage's transition from revelatory rhythm to revelatory vision is natural and inevitable. A cloth of gold, as it were, is the theme—and the gold is the Light of lights, the creative fire that goes forth in a million modes and materialises and the suns with which our heavens are bespangled. An elemental incandescence projecting the contents of the Inscrutable in symbol-shapes is at work in the ecstatic heat of poetic production. The mantra holds it in a white state, so to speak, but something of it persists everywhere, and each poet has in him the sense of a supra-intellectual illumination no less than a sense of some primal rapture which affines his heartbeat to what the old tradition designated the music of the spheres, the concord of the universal OM. With that illumination he becomes the seer of truth just as with that rapture he becomes the hearer of it—the truth concerned being the sight achieved of any aspect of reality by means of the faculty of intuition, with its thrilled flash into the depth of any part of the world through the depth of some part of one's self.

 

A gloss on the triple operation sketched by the lines—intuitive knowledge that is a voice, a voice that is a splendor—may be derived from four verses elsewhere in Savitri:

 

Even now great thoughts are here that walk alone:

Armed they have come with the infallible word

In an investiture of intuitive light

That is a sanction from the eyes of God...

[p. 258]

 

Even the cloth-symbol is present and it directly serves to merge the elements of our three lines.

 

With these elements unified in his consciousness, the poet at his highest raises up an art-form of flawless loveliness, a Song in which Infinity's own self-disclosing articulation is at play: the godheads pronounce each his being's central note, his inherent name-image in which the power of his immortal creative bliss resides. The master-poet, by letting the Illimitable formulate its myriad magic of deific motion through his singing, echoes in the dominant rhythms of his poetry the primal measures of the Supreme's self-expression in the multitudinous cosmos: the metres of the starry revolutions, their set accords of majestic journey through endless space and time, are caught in his designs of long and short sounds, vowel-flows and consonant-curbs, overtones and undertones, stresses and slacks, line-units and verse-paragraphs—the macrocosmic regularities find their reflection in a microcosm of poetic cadences, the moving worlds make themselves felt in the harmonious words. As in our first group of verses, we have Infinity's rhythm-beats metricised.

 

Then we have the grand finalethe last line which seems to bear in itself both qualitatively and quantitatively all the rest in quintessence:

 

  /          /          /         /                        /         /       /

Sight's sound-waves breaking from the soul's great deeps.

[p. 383]

 

It is a really lengthy line because of eight step-by-step monosyllables and seven intrinsically long vowels and four consecutive stresses at the start and three at the end. The slow weighty stretched movement conveys the sense of a massive flood drawn towards earth from the distance of a divine existencethe profound secrecy of the Soul. Here again, as before, we have the Soul as the source of poetry and this source is not only deep within us but also itself a great depth, holding as it were a vast concealed ocean of experience-movements in which the Divine Consciousness is hidden and in which there is an occult oneness of our individuality with the whole world. Sensation, emotion, idea are here involved or contained in a thrilled awareness focused for poetic purposes in a luminous vision which is at the same time a subtle vibration taking the form of rhythmic words.

 

"Sight's sound-waves": a marvellous turn condensing an entire system of poetics. Seeing and hearing are shown as fused facultiesyet each is given its proper role. Poetry brings the soul's vastness into our common life by means of "sound-waves"it is a super-version of Homer's "many-rumoured ocean". But the mighty billows drive home to us a burden of sight: the ocean is not only many-rumoured, it is also many-glimmered, many-figured. The poet's work is principally to set himself astir with the shine, the hue, the contour, the posture of things. Significances start within him as vivid pictures, imaginative conjurations, symbolic hints: through them he enjoys the subjective and the objective worlds and by them he traces the beauty and truth of things and attains to a comprehension of details, interrelations, totalities. However, the poet's seeings are of such an intensity and come projected from such an ecstasy-vibrant fount that they burst upon us with a verbal declaration of their intents. Each sight has its own manifesting sound which is not just "transmissive" but "incarnative", embodying with a living intimacy and piercing directness the gleaming stuff and stir of the Soul's revelatory contact with reality.

 

And this sound is best compared, as by Sri Aurobindo, to waves. For, it is a sustained march with a rise and fall, its rhythms variously modulating on a basic recurrent tone and breaking upon the receptive mind and heart and sensation not only with happy spontaneities like the changing dance of spume and spray but also with powerful profundities like the sweep of unremitting rollers and persisting undercurrents and now and then a mysterious ground-swell.

 

We may remark how the image of the sea springs up time and again in Sri Aurobindo's poetry about the poetic phenomenon. It is particularly there when he refers to that phenomenon's highest resolution in the mystic and spiritual key. But it has a vital role elsewhere too. In the course of recounting Savitri's girlhood and its inclusion of an experience of all the arts he tells us:

 

Poems in largeness cast like moving worlds

And metres surging with the ocean's voice

Translated by grandeurs locked in Nature's heart

But thrown now into a crowded glory of speech

The beauty and sublimity of her forms,

The passion of her moments and her moods

Lifting the human word nearer to the god's.

[p. 361]

 

The unsealing of grandeurs from subtle dimensions of Nature to cast an interpretative light on the world-pageant through a rich packed poetry could very well be true of ancient epics like Valmiki's Ramayana and Vyasa's Mahabharata or mediaeval ones like Kalidasa's Kumdrasambhava and Raghuvamsha. The last phrase about man's word being upraised to neighbour a divine utterance, rather than itself becoming such, is a pointer to the secular character of the poems concerned. This character is recognised all the more when we have a clear description of spiritual poetry, a use of the word in a different fashion and for a different goal:

 

Invested with a rhythm of higher spheres

The word was used as a hieratic means

For the release of the imprisoned spirit

Into communion with its comrade gods.

Or it helped to beat out new expressive forms

Of that which labours in the heart of life,

Some immemorial Soul in men and things,

Seeker of the Unknown and the Unborn

Carrying a light from the Ineffable

To rend the veil of the last mysteries.

[p. 360]

 

Those other poems had their regard on Nature's forms, moments, moods and set free in the visible world deeper meanings, greater dynamisms that are like presences of hidden lords of Nature, living puissances that are secret cosmic agents. Now we are told of an attempt with the help of inspiration from "higher spheres" and not merely inner ones ("Nature's heart"), to liberate the soul of man, the "spirit" encased in the sensing, feeling, thinking body, and enable it to grow one with divine entities, share in the very being of secret cosmic agents, Nature's hidden lords, and even in that of transcendental powers, godheads beyond the universe and not only behind it. Further, side by side with the spirit's linkage with divinity through poetic rhythms brought straight from "above," hieratic or sacred poetry endeavours for a manifestation of divinity "below". It gets into touch with "the heart of life" where a World-Soul toils at evolution within man's physical mould and Nature's matter. Charged with the drive of this evolutionary Dreamer, it aims to infuse his idealistic dynamism into the stuff of outward existence, so that novel modes of thought and desire and perception may be realised, expressing openly through the activities of this stuff the fulfilment of the World-Soul's venture across the ages to revel here and now the arcade Eternal, the masked Absolute. Yes, the poems spoken of in our earlier quotation are like the masterpieces of Valmiki, Vyasa and Kalidasa rather than like the Vedic hymns, the Upanishadic shlokas or that super-Vyasan rarity—the Gita—in the midst of the Mahabharata. But these too, in Sri Aurobindo's imagination, have their own sound-waves of sight: through their metrical movement "the ocean's voice" is heard in them no less than in the mighty compositions that move from everlasting to everlasting in the worlds of the gods and whose imitations on earth are the Rishis' songs of "Infinity's names and deathless powers"—mighty compositions pictured by Sri Aurobindo in the eleventh Book of Savitri:

 

The odes that shape the universal thought,

The lines that tear the veil from Deity's face,

The rhythms that bring the sounds of wisdom's sea.

[p. 677]

 

Large structured chants bearing the formative force of the Ideas on which the cosmic plan is founded, intensely lyrical phrases capturing with visionary power the secrets of the Supreme Beauty, patterns of sustained sonorities conveying fathomless suggestions and ultimate significances that escape all defining speech—this progression of poetic elements in the supernal modes concludes deliberately on the image of wide waters. That image makes the right climax. For most in the mantra, even as mainly in every species of poetry, it is the rhythmic vibration which holds the keenest sense of the life-throb, so to speak, of the Infinite and carries the greatest potentiality of re-creating the human existence in the mould of the divine. This vibration serves as the strongest instrument to stir the deepest recesses of our being and awake in them an answer of sympathetic vision to the sight of the Eternal which, in one shape or another, all poetry fundamentally strives to lay bare.

 

Keeping "sight" and its "sound-waves" in mind we may sum up in the words of Sri Aurobindo our whole exposition: "Sight is the essential poetic gift. The archetypal poet in a world of original ideas is, we may say, a Soul that sees in itself intimately this world and all the others and God and Nature and the life of beings and sets flowing from its centre a surge of creative rhythm and word-images which become the expressive body of the vision; and the great poets are those who repeat in some measure this ideal creation, kavayah satyaśrutāh, seers and hearers of the poetic truth and poetic word." [10]


Sri Aurobindo—The Poet, 1999, pp. 182-207


[1] Adapted from Nos. 2, 3 and 4 of Talks on Poetry delivered to students of the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education. [Published in Mother India and later in the book Sri Aurobindo The Poet (1970)]

[2] The Future Poetry, SABCL, Vol. 9, p. 10

[3] Ibid., p. 29

[4] Ibid., pp. 33-34

[5] Ibid.,pp. 219-20

[6] Ibid., p. 35

[7] Collected Poems, SABCL, Vol. 5, p. 351

[8] Collected Poems, SABCL, Vol. 5, pp. 368-69

[9] The Future Poetry, SABCL, Vol. 9, p. 220

[10] The Future Poetry, SABCL, Vol. 9, p. 30